Chai, hot steaming tea, is the most popular of road-side delicacies on offer around India. You can find chai everywhere! But that doesn’t mean it’s always the same. Nor is it always ‘safe’…
Chai, ‘safe’ or not, is the ‘gateway drug’ of Indian street food. It’s like the
initiation drink, leading to further explorations down the winding, tantalising road of salted fruit and steaming hot peanuts.
A ‘questionable chai’ becomes a ‘questionable samosa’, which leads to ‘questionable fruit plates’, then ‘questionable deep-fried matter’ and finally ‘something so questionable I have no idea what it is’, and before you know it you’re deep in the bowels of the snack-stall holder’s thrall with no-where to turn but to your wallet. Which is ok because each snack costs about 20cents.
But the hard bit is starting. Getting past that stress of ‘this will hurt my insides’ and remembering that not all street food is bad… We travellers are understandably reluctant to risk our insides for the sake of a snack.
But what if you did? What if you risked it, ignored your doctor and gobbled that pani puri?
‘Questionable’ Entity no. 1: the salty papaya
Fruit is sweet, yes? Well, no. Not always. It was a great source of stress and wonder for S and I in the streets of Northern-most India, that fruit was not necessarily a dessert item, it was not always identifiable and it was rarely sold without a vastly inappropriate accompaniment of some sort. Cheese perhaps, or some form of meat…
…something so questionable I have no idea what it is…
The perfect example of this was in Amritsar where we stumbled across a man selling plates of lush, ripe papaya. We’d been walking the streets around the Golden Temple for a while by that time, having previously bathed our toes in it’s delightful fungal bath entrance and wandered along the decidedly peaceful promenade that comprises it’s open lake-side patios.
We were tired, and we were torn between being full of street chai and absolutely ravenous. So, naturally, fruit appealed!
Ignoring our conscience, that little guy sitting in the depths of our stomaches and stabbing at our innards with a sharp ‘you’re gonna regret that…’, we ordered “doh papaya, kripaya” and handed over our 20 rupees. “I actually am so flipping keen for papaya” S turned to me, “it’s exactly what I need”.
“Agreed.” As I spoke the man finished dicing our two slices of papaya and spread the cubes onto a ‘questionable’ looking paper plate. He rubbed the rim, flicked a speck off one of the pink juicy lumps and picked the plate up. ‘Questionable!’ yes. It’s fruit, he touched it, he flicked it, he probably re-cycled the plate, bla bla bla – but the most questionable attribute of this particular meal was yet to come.
As we reached out for our sullied bundle of fruity goodness, our benefactor shoved his hand into a little cotton purse lying on the counter. Digging around for a few seconds, he gradually brought his hand back up and over our plate. We watched, bemused and intrigued as he sprinkled.. sugar? No. Cinamon? Ahh nope. Wait, SALT?!
And that, friends, is how to suddenly stop being ‘flipping keen’ for papaya.
This one is particularly exciting, largely because the more ‘questionable’ you get with your recklessness the more delighted your tongue is when you bite into the result.
I once met a man on a bus from Jaipur to Agra who was a businessman in ‘salted snacks’. Suited and tied, he was very proud of his savoury occupation and expounded to me at length throughout the entire journey on the expenses of salt and the benefits of snacks, until I almost vowed never to eat this ‘Questionable’ street delight ever again. Almost…but not really anywhere close.
You see, the thing with salty snacks is that they are never the same; maybe this guy’s packets were quantified and identified, but the kind of stuff I was into was never named and never questioned. And never in packets!
He rubbed the rim, flicked a speck off one of the pink juicy lumps and picked the plate up.
Imagine… On a cobbled street winding down past the Ganges, lined by a mix match of buildings all offering yoga and only selling meditation, a single wooden cart with big thick spoked wheels and an ancient looking counter. Behind the cart sits a tiny boy.
His eyes are huge and very brown, as is his over-sized mud-coloured shirt, and his hair matches. His hands are tiny and also very brown, and the dirt beneath his fingernails puts the word ‘caked’ to shame. He sits cross legged on a high stool so that his upper torso is above the cart in front of him, and as he sits he folds and cuts pieces of newspaper into square pieces roughly 5cm by 5cm.
You walk up to the boy and his cart, suddenly hungry, and point to a newspaper square. “Ek, ji… kya peanut hain?” (one please…do you have peanuts?) The boy’s eyes are fixed on your own as he slowly picks up a square and begins to curl it into a cone.
“Kya peanuts hain- ?”
“ji, ha.” (yes)
His eyes roll; yes, there are peanuts you idiot. And you are an idiot, because right in front of your eyes is an array of 7 or so cotton sacks filled with chickpeas, chips, crisps, fresh onion, basil, coriander and, of course, peanuts.
You point to the sacks you like and the boy dips his ‘caked’-shaming fingertips into them like one would into sand, gripping handfuls of the stuff and dumping them into the cone he prepared earlier. You follow his progress, popping a few more chickpeas in here and chucking a few crisps there.
I once met a man on a bus from Jaipur to Agra who was a businessman in ‘salted snacks’.
Finally you turn to the end of the counter and slap down 10rps. Beside your note is a pot of salt, chillie powder and some strange substance which will never be known but should always be taken. You take all.
You take all, and your cone, and you walk away to continue down your winding path past Rishikesh’s Ganges and incongruous lack of yoga institutions as you nibble your salted snacks… And they are as heavenly as the boy who gave them to you was brown.
‘Questionable’ Entity no. 3: fried by flies
They say deep fried is the safest option if you’re going to go for Indian side-stalls, but to be honest I’m a bit dubious on this one.
I don’t honestly enjoy fried food in general so I am not perhaps the best authority anyway, but the majority of samosas, piranthas, pancakes and strange unknown oily goods that I have ordered from Indian streets have been salted and peppered, but not with pepper…
Whatever seasoning that is, it just moved.
‘Questionable’ Entity no. 4: U.F.Ohmygosh
I’ve mentioned many times before how miscellaneous things can get when they’re sold on the street in stalls in India, and I have to say of all the ‘questionable’ items on offer, things that you cannot name are the most daring. Duh.
What is it? Don’t know? Ok then you have to try it.
I was with a Canadian man in Delhi towards the end of my trip and we made a habit of this. My friend, lets call him A, was very adventurous and had the stomach of an ox, and he made a point of trying new things everywhere he went. Top guy! Until things went wrong…
A side note here, friends, in India you can be adventurous and you HAVE to try new things, but never play with fire. Keep that common sense and never feel you have to ‘out-intrepid’ anyone else. Ever.
Anyway! In his romping Delhi-days A was happy and adventurous, and together we ate a lot of UFOs, the ‘F’ not standing for anything in particular in the wake of the vastly more important ‘unidentifiable’ sitting before it.
They say deep fried is the safest option if you’re going to go for Indian side-stalls.
We liked to order one of whatever we saw and share it, comment, savour it, and finally attempt to answer 3 key questions (which perhaps would have been wiser to answer before hand):
- What’s it called?
- What’s it made out of?
- Is this a sweet thing or a savoury thing?
The answers became increasingly imaginative and rarely had much factual basis because to be honest we had no idea what we were eating.
I didn’t get sick (then), but in retrospect that may have been more down to luck more than anything else! Thankyou Ganesha ji…
‘Questionable’ Entity no. 5: Tepanyaki a’la chapatti
Have you ever been to the restaurant Tepankyaki? I did once, at the age of 14, with school, and I was honestly entranced by the fact that they made our food RIGHT THERE before our eyes.
Imagine this just outside the chaos that is Old Delhi metro, among milling strangers and above hungry dogs, on huge flat metal slabs of oily, salty goodness. And there you have a Tepankyaki with SO MUCH MORE.
What was that subtle hint of…god knows what in the vegetable uttapam you just sampled? Well, lets look at who passed by whilst Mr Tepanyaki was cooking it… Why is the onion I just saw fried before my eyes emitting such strong wafts of lemon juice?
Well there’s a lemon soda stand next door, duh. And how does this strange masala form of french toast taste so very cheesy? You know what don’t ask that, just chuck it in your mouth, resign yourself to any possible consequences and enjoy!
Because that taste is completely and utterly circumstantial, in the moment, and very very unique.